Local activists have worked for decades to force school boards to change the names of schools that honor Gens. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, as well as Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and other leaders in the South during the Civil War era.
And in many places, schools have been renamed. In Austin, for example, the school board has changed the names of more than five schools in the past several years, and in 2017, the school board in Virginia’s Fairfax County changed the name of J.E.B. Stuart High School to Justice High and is considering changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School.
But there are, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 13 schools named after Lee, including early-learning centers, in Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Florida and Louisiana. And there may be others the center’s search function does not capture, as well as scores more named after Confederate heroes.
Those who support retaining the names say they represent history, while critics say it is that very history that is harmful and that it is racist to honor Confederate leaders who fought the Civil War to maintain slavery.
Exactly how many schools have Confederate names is unclear. The nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center said that it’s newest count, as of June 5, 2020, shows that there are 110 schools named after Confederate leaders but that it may not know about all of them.
The push and pull over this issue is clear in Virginia. For example, residents in Hanover County have been trying for years to get Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School renamed but so far have run into barriers.
In 2018, the school board rejected calls to change the names and voted to keep them. The mascot of Lee-Davis High is “The Confederates” and the middle school mascot is “The Rebels.” Those names have been emblazoned on banners and signs throughout the schools, along with images of the Confederate leaders.
Last month, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit filed against the school board by the NAACP of Hanover County asking that the two schools be renamed, saying they created a hostile environment for African American students and violated their civil rights.
The suit was filed shortly after about a dozen people “wearing white robes and waving Confederate flags gathered near the Hanover County Courthouse” and urged people to call a Ku Klux Klan hotline, according the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
U.S. District Judge Robert Payne said that while the names of the schools, which are more than 50 years old, may offend some members of the NAACP, the complaint itself failed “to allege facts sufficient to state a claim for relief.” He said that a two-year statute of limitations for personal injury had passed.
Robert Barnette, president of Hanover County NAACP, said in an email that the suit was filed to force the renaming of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School because they send a message to African American students that “they are less worthy than their white counterparts.” He said he was considering next steps, including an appeal of the judge’s decision.
“These messages are harmful,” Barnette said in an email. “By naming Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School in response to efforts to desegregate Hanover County Public Schools more than half a century ago, and by refusing to change those names now, Hanover County has created and reinforced a school environment that is hostile to African American students and antithetical to the values of morality and equality. Maintaining names that were adopted for the stated purpose of honoring and celebrating the Confederacy is unconscionable and cements an unequal educational environment for African American students.”
Members of the school board did not respond to queries. Lisa Ashworth Seward, deputy county attorney, said in an email, “While I understand your interest, the school board cannot comment on the pending appeal.”
Meanwhile, in Prince William County in Virginia, Superintendent Steve Walts said in a recent open letter that he wants to drop Stonewall Jackson from the name of two schools: “We can no longer represent the Confederacy in our schools.”
In Shenandoah County in Virginia, where there is a Stonewall Jackson High School, the Northern Virginia Daily reported that Mark Johnston, the public schools superintendent there, doesn’t support changing that name. In an email to the Northern Virginia Daily, he wrote:
My position on this is that it is not the name of a school that matters as much as the culture of that school and that students are free from bias and discrimination. Our School Board policies specifically address that we do not tolerate discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, etc. Stonewall Jackson High School is a warm and welcoming school because the students, teachers, administrators, and parents have made it so. It has the highest rate of dual enrollment course completion in the division. It is diverse and that diversity is celebrated.
In Montgomery County, Ala., there are three high schools with Confederate-era names — Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Sidney Lanier, who was a Southern poet who fought in the Confederate Army and became known as the “poet of the Confederacy.”
To change the names, the Board of Education must jump through administrative hoops set up by the Committee on Alabama Monument Protection. The committee was created by a 2017 law that prevents any monument or building that is more than 40 years old from being renamed without legislative approval. It could take months for the county school board to get a waiver from the law to change the school names.
Clare Weil, the president of the county Board of Education, said in an email that she wants to rename the schools.
“It is my hope that we are the system that acts quickly to have the schools renamed,” she said. “There is no reason to glorify Civil War heroes in 2020 with a majority of students being African American. There is no reason to glorify them under any circumstances.”
Meanwhile, a new petition on change.org calls for renaming four schools it says are named for Confederate leaders in the Abilene Independent School District in Texas.
(Update: Adding updated numbers of schools with Confederate names)